The Baron at Home


A Profile by Cecil ‘Flash’ Winstone

A Profile by Flash Winstone
The Man from Interpol

On entering the home of a well known jazzman, one expects to find evidence of affinity to his music. Maybe a picture of Bird, Gillespie, or Webster gracing the walls. Young Man With A Horn “Really The Blues”, or “Blame It On My Youth” sharing places with Robert Graves and Hemingway on the bookshelf.

Record sleeves strewn carelessly on a divan, and one or two copies of Down Beat and Crescendo. An air of disarray might pervade the apartment, with the suggestion that too much attention to material surroundings could hamper one’s dedication to the ordered abstractions of music.

Tony Crombie’s palatial residence puts paid to these expectations. His eyrie in St. John’s Wood has all the trappings associated with that unconscious enemy of progressive music, the affluent middle–class. Chippendale and Sheraton styles dominate the scene, disputing pride of place with reproductions of early Italian and Dutch Masters. In a windowed alcove, the bust of a Roman senator broods on its marble plinth.

Fine vases, precious jade, and a Lambartine clock contribute to the antiquated sophistication. Giving the mausoleum its kiss of life stands an unrepentant Tony Crombie. His well–fed, six–foot frame, resplendent in Cashmere dressing gown and ivory cigarette holder, has the unmistakable bloom of la dolce vita; Watching him flick ash, it occurred to me how apt and prophetic was Art Baxter, onetime singer with an early Crombie Orchestra, when he applied to Tony the nick–name Baron.

I asked myself whence stems the Tony Crombie affront to one’s preconceptions. The powerhouse drummer stimulating the great Ben Webster to even greater heights seems difficult to reconcile with the sedentary antiquarian lording it over the fragile elegance of yesteryear. What motivates this Jekyll and Hyde existence? Is it an opportunism (a charge once levelled at him for his excursion into Rock ’n’ Roll), a desire to emulate the nouveau riche? Is it an unconscious attempt to obliterate memories of an adolescence spent in an almost cultureless East End tenement? Has he lost his own revolutionary and radical ideals?

These and other questions occupied my mind as I sat in the sepulchral splendour of his apartment. “I can understand your desire for living beauty,” I said slyly as his lovely wife Beryl entered, giving a much needed twentieth century charm to the room, “but all this interest in Deadwood. ...” “Wedgewood,” he corrected coldly. “And he was just as creative in his way as Charlie Parker. I deplore the mass–production of furniture and china just as much as I dislike the countless assembly–line Charlie Parkers. One’s personal requirements in a home should be just as much catered for as one’s musical demands.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I said. “But these greybeards you surround yourself with did not create anything specifically for you. They were patronised by and used by (and for) the ruling class.” All my objection was dismissed with an imperious wave of his cigarette holder. It was the adoption of the cigarette holder that, with his defensive stare of studied arrogance, first earned him the nickname of The Baron years ago.

“When are you going to forget all those half–baked Marxian theories of yours?” he asked. “We are living in a world of class distinctions. How often do we say—and rightfully—that Gillespie and Hawkins are in a class by themselves? And this is quite true, you know it as well as I. Don’t fight it, Flash Go along with it. You’ll enjoy it.”

I almost believed him as I watched him lovingly caressing a piece of. rare Mycenaean pottery he had come across last year while holidaying in the Greek Islands. “There is quite a difference,” I said, pursuing the subject during dinner served on an early Edwardian hot–plate, “between a class intent on maintaining its own privileges as the original owners of these baubles were—and the class of Dizzy and Bird, who are only desirous of disseminating their privileges to all.”

Digging for the remains of a Porterhouse steak with a Louis XIVth toothpick, he quoted from a Gutenberg Bible acquired while working in Paris with Duke Ellington. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” “It is possible,” he continued, “that Charlie Parker felt that with the aid of his music he could lessen the antagonism between the races. But unfortunately this has not proved to be the case. The attempt to use music as a political lever has proved ineffective. The best one can do is to be as proficient in one’s work as the occasion demands.” 

Recalling his work over the last decade with such diverse talents as Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Wee Willie Harris, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster; —all performed with immaculate competence—I felt my own purism wavering. I believe catholicity can be carried too far, and I felt as I left him that if he continues to play as well as he does, his antiques may L not have the last word. 

As an art critic, I still maintain that The Baron can’t tell a Rembrandt from a Tom and Jerry. But as a swinging drummer, Tony Crombie rates in my book as high as anyone in the world.